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Vivan Sundaram. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery.
Vivan Sundaram. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery.

Vivan Sundaram (1943–2023)

Pathbreaking artist and activist Vivan Sundaram, who transformed the landscape of Indian contemporary art, died March 29 in New Delhi following a brain hemorrhage. He was seventy-nine. Through a practice that encompassed installation, photography, illustration, sculpture, video, and painting, Sundaram investigated social and political themes as well as those relating to popular culture and to issues surrounding perception, memory, and history. A great believer in communication and collaboration across practices, Sundaram was of the opinion that art could effect social change.

Vivan Sundaram was born in Shimla, India, in 1943. His father was Kalyan Sundaram, a civil servant and independent India’s first law secretary and second chief election commissioner; his mother was Indira Sher-Gil, the sister of pioneering painter Amrita Sher-Gil. After earning a bachelor’s degree in painting at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, Gujarat, in 1965, he enrolled at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, where, as a Commonwealth scholar, he studied under British-American painter RB Kitaj, obtaining his postgraduate degree in 1968. Concurrently, he gained a keen interest in cinema and social justice around this time, being especially influenced by the events of May ’68, which saw students across France mobilize in protest of consumerism, American imperialism, and class disparities.

After hitchhiking and traveling by train across Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan—“I had to fly over Pakistan,” he told the ICP’s Nandita Raman in 2016—Sundaram in 1972 returned to India, where he began making works drawing from such disparate genres as Pop, Surrealism, and abstraction. Through these, he variously examined the plights of repressed or persecuted people, ranging from European Jews who fled the Holocaust in the 1940s to the Indian Sikhs who endured violent protest against their religion in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. In 1976, he founded the Kasauli Art Centre and the Journal of Arts and Ideas, meant to foster experimental collaborations between writers and artists. Sundaram considered such cross-pollination crucial to creativity and understanding. “Connecting with people from different disciplines has always informed my work,” he told the Indian Express in 2018. He continued to organize workshops and seminars there through 1991.

As the 1990s dawned, Sundaram expanded his practice to incorporate more unusual materials in his installations. The shift is perhaps most famously embodied in his Memorial of 1993. The work responds to the communal violence then taking place in Bombay (now Mumbai), specifically the destruction by a right-wing Hindu mob of the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque. Memorial is a room-size installation at whose center is a glowing triangle shielding a dead body rendered in plaster, the form recalling that of an anonymous victim of the skirmishes photographed by an Indian journalist. Surrounding this are vitrines containing photos riven with nails, and gateways comprised of stacked metal trunks.The right wing was rising up and the state was letting it happen,” Sundaram told the White Review’s Kayamani Sharma in 2019. “I kept thinking, how do I deal with this? I drew on the influence of minimalism that I had grappled with as a student in England, and started thinking of the photograph in spatial terms, in its most formal aspect. The fact that the photograph was a found object, and that I didn’t witness the violence first-hand as my friends in Mumbai did, added another layer: my entry into the tragedy was from a distance.”

Among Sundaram’s other groundbreaking works are Calcutta’s History Project, 1998, the first site-specific installation in India, erected in celebration of the fifty-year anniversary of the end of partition; Sher-Gil Archive, 1995, and  Re-take of “Amrita,” 2001–2006, in which Sundaram manipulated family photographs to explore his own history; and 12 Bed Ward, 2005, a dozen rusted cot frames lined up in two rows and covered with the soles of shoes rather than mattresses, asking the viewer to consider the marginalization experienced by those on the fringes of Indian society. Sundaram often deployed found objects to such ends. “Notions of recycling, skill, craft, and the Duchampian readymade have always interested me,” he told Artforum’s Zehra Jumabhoy in 2011, commenting on his controversial 2008 mixed-media installation Trash. “In [that work], I dealt with the underbelly of the urban, which is continuously being destroyed and marginalized in ‘New India.’ Yet despite this assault by so-called city development, the city re-creates itself. Delhi is the metropolis of the twenty-first century––Calcutta and Bombay were the cities of the nineteenth and twentieth century. But what happens to those who live outside the developmental agency of capitalism and power?”

Sundaram wrote extensively, between 1981 and 1999 contributing to the Journal of Arts & Ideas, of which he was a cofounder; as well, he was a cofounder of Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust. He recently enjoyed two fifty-year retrospectives, “Step Inside and You Are No Longer a Stranger,” at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, and “Disjunctures,” at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, both in 2018. He was one of thirty artists commissioned to make new work to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Sharjah Biennial. His photograph-based work Six Stations of a Life Pursued, 2022, is on view at Sharjah Biennial 15 through June of this year.